When it comes to Shakespeare, comparatively scant biographical data lead to speculations galore. And publications of that lore. For his predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer, past critics customarily apply more mundane facts about his mercantile background and his diplomatic missions as background to his writings. While none can rival the Bard as to the stack of publications amassed over centuries about him, Chaucer generates a large share of medieval scholarship, if less renowned among a wider audience. Of course, he remains famous for his tales, but they in turn roam far beyond a few facile allusions to his salty bedroom farces or slatternly chatter of his inimitable Wife of Bath.
Nearly all Chaucerian study addresses its own often insular academy, whereas for Shakespeare, there’s enough general recognition of his characters and plots to populate memes and satirical cartoons. For an author less famed, often mislabeled by those less informed as having told his tales and legends in “Old English”, that error testifies to the enduring lack of understanding of Chaucer’s place in history, language, and literacy. A hazy memory of a few lines of the opening Prologue to the Tales of Canterbury suffices for most, from a dusty classroom early in a term assigned to English Literature Survey, high school or college. Marion Turner‘s tome may not change this much.
Yet her enormous contribution to our comprehension of Chaucer’s moves and maneuvers within his culture will alter scholarly contexts, at least for a few attentive professors and, it is to be hoped, patient readers outside of the seminar or AP course. This Oxford professor took a “mid-career grant” to delve into the national archives, as well as the poems and prose, left behind from late medieval England. And beyond. For her subtitle “A European Life” separates her depiction from previous biographies. Even arguably the last one pitched at a general audience, Donald R. Howard’s genial 1987 work Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (Dutton), is nearly as long as Turner’s, which had to compress Chaucer’s distant forays and workaday activities to allow sufficient space to explicate his subject’s creative endeavors.
Turner opens her project by admitting: “I’ve chosen to tell the story of his life and his poetry through spaces and places, rather than through strict chronology.” She starts off on a tangent, revealing a bead-maker’s robbery of a haberdashery around Paternoster Row, north of St. Paul’s churchyard in the heart of 1378 London. She shifts to Chaucer, resident of nearby Aldgate. As a relevant aside, Paul Strohm in his recent Chaucer’s Tale, chronicled a crucial period nine years later, when Chaucer, having been edged out of John of Gaunt’s inner circle, decided to retreat from court and Aldgate to chart out his pilgrim-peopled road to Canterbury. (See my article, “The Year That Changed Chaucer from Court Insider to Ambitious Author“, PopMatters, 16 Feb 2015.)
But Chaucer was not even in the English capital on the day that the case was heard. He was in Italy, on a diplomatic mission for the royal household and as a retainer of his patron, John of Gaunt. Turner shows how the items sold by that aggrieved haberdasher demonstrate the international trade networks, which had enriched Chaucer’s comfortable upbringing by spice traders, and how these lucrative connections enabled his career to flourish in a cosmopolitan milieu across borders.
Any allusions to Brexit remain tacit, but Turner aims at correcting the course away from any parochial fealty or princely allegiance claimed for Chaucer. Instead, she follows him to the changing Continent and beyond. Within a multilingual web of linguistic and creative exchange, Chaucer leaves behind his imitative French-inspired love verse. In whatever spare time to write away from his “numerous day jobs” and frequent stints on the road and the seas, Chaucer emerges as a man who lived through intrigue, rebellions, a peasant’s rising, and above all, a determination to translate.
It was not only the gist of narratives he’d craft into witty, solemn, tendentious, or tender evocations of life as well as love; he brought his English readers the exotic exploits of Genghis Khan, the tyrannical deeds of Lombards, the tales of Ovid and Dante, Boccaccio and Boëthius. Turner places Chaucer among the Florentine frescoes of Giotto di Bondone, as a pioneering exponent of Italian literature transferred and tailored into English rhyme. Turner reasons that since the Tuscan vernacular had been energized by its expression in the (Divine) Comedy and the Decameron, so Chaucer chose to experiment with adapting a pentameter (ten-syllable, five-stress line) into poems, which in turn resonated for Shakespeare in the next century. Furthermore, the sonnet so invigorated by Shakespeare may have had its Englishe origins in Chaucer’s example, having translated Petrarch’s style into our own.
After living through Strohm’s momentous year of 1386, amidst the rising of rebels and the threats to the realm’s stability, he began his pilgrimage cycle. Turner comes out in favor of a vote for peering past the straits of Dover. Her tracing of archetypes and prototypes to French, Latin, Flemish, and even Central Asian sources for the framework of the Canterbury enactment will remind those outside the narrow concentration on sources and analogues within literary criticism and historical pursuits, that Chaucer visited Navarre in today’s Spain, Genoa, and, earliest of all, Rheims. For he was imprisoned there in 1359, only a teenager, during the Hundred Years’ War.
Besides, coming from a family of wine merchants, Chaucer knew a broader world from his childhood. His birthplace of Vintry Ward attests to the vintners who plied their custom, and to the job which is most associated with Chaucer on his home turf: that of a customs comptroller for the wool trade, key to the profits that English investors sought in their deals across the French Channel.
Turner, in Chaucer’s life, limns a duration enriched by what came before his years as a writer. His experiences in markets abroad, his negotiations in the company of diplomats, and his business acumen gain further nuance, and mystery, by charges against him of ” raptus“, which has been argued as either rape or abduction of a bride for a young ward of his. This legal scenario caroms off of Chaucer’s knack for portraying both male and female roles with more depth and nuance than before, at least in much of the Continental literature from which he took models and conceptions.
Better instructed, a reader (by the conclusion of an account which sustains the attention of a well-educated inquirer) should appreciate what Turner accomplishes in this work. She situates Chaucer within a renowned coterie far more deserving than that of his fickle employer, John of Gaunt. Instead of relegating Chaucer to a Ricardian dynastic set of conniving yes men, Turner moves him into an elevated cabal: that of his poetic inspirations across Europe, among his esteemed forebears of what everyday language could become when wielded by masters Dante and Boccaccio in Italy, and Guillaume de Machaut from France, and back to Ovid and Boëthius at Rome.